Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Engaging your audience


Presenting a lesson to a group 16 year-olds is one thing - keeping an audience of parents or governors engaged for an hour can be quite another. Nick Higham wrote the following simple rules for professionals in business, but they are equally relevant to school and college leaders.

Only would-be journalists receive formal training in how to organise and deliver information to an audience in the clearest way and with the greatest impact.

This may help to explain the years of pain most of us suffer listening to PowerPoint presentations by well-meaning amateurs who lose both their audience and the plot because they've never been taught a few fundamental principles of good communication.

At a recent industry conference I was gossiping along these lines with the man in charge of the sound when the next speaker overheard us. Unwisely, he asked for some feedback on his own presentation. Equally unwisely, I agreed to give it.

It was terrible. I told him so (politely, I hope) and he took it more or less without flinching; but it seemed no one had ever pointed out to him what he was doing wrong, or even that he was doing anything wrong at all.

So here is some well-meant advice, derived partly from the notes I took during that unfortunate speaker's presentation, to be cut out and kept for the next time you're called on to stand up in front of a roomful of your peers.

Tell a story

People like stories. Even highly sophisticated, educated people like stories. They want to know what happens next, so they'll keep listening. And from your point of view telling a (true) story means rooting your presentation in reality: you can put forward real examples to illustrate your presentation; you can show pictures of real people and places; you can talk about real issues.

One of the biggest enemies of effective communication is the tendency to talk in the abstract (management consultants please note). Better one case history than a score of hypotheses: save the theories for your MBA.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

People are good listeners when a subject engages them, but there's only so much the mind can absorb in a single sitting. Your audience has no chance to go back and re-read what you've just said if they didn't understand it first time round. So work out the essential point you want to convey and stick to that: ruthlessly cut out digressions, unnecessary detail, redundant background.

Then say what you have to say simply and clearly. Avoid jargon. Don't use long words. If you're working from a script rather than improvising, write short sentences.

Signpost clearly: tell people what you're going to say at the start; highlight crucial steps in the argument or turning points in the narrative; end with a brief summary; don't be afraid to repeat important points to make sure people have understood them properly.

As a general rule most presentations would benefit from being cut in half - less unnecessary information to confuse or bore the audience; less chance of overrunning; more opportunity for questions.

Involve your audience

Invite them to share their experiences. Pose questions. Present them with dilemmas and ask their opinion on possible solutions. Monologues are boring for everyone except the speaker: dialogues are engaging.

Make the words fit the pictures

If you must use PowerPoint then make the slides absolutely central to what you have to say. The combination of words and pictures (including graphics such as charts and graphs) is incredibly powerful, but if what you're saying bears no relationship to what is on your slide most listeners will take in the visual information but ignore the verbal stuff.

This is especially true if the slide has lots of text on it. Nobody can read one set of words and listen to another set of words and take in both. Indeed, a useful rule of thumb is...

Don't put text on PowerPoint slides

This rule can be broken, but only after careful thought and for a purpose. Text is okay if you're going to read out a quote. But make sure you do read it out (see the point above) before discussing its significance, because otherwise your audience will just read the quote and ignore you.

I shouldn't have to say that any text should be large enough to read - and yet in my hapless speaker's presentation I counted at least a dozen slides so crammed with words and charts they were illegible.

I could go on, but you get the idea. And no, you don't have to be a professional to succeed in this game. At the same industry conference one of the best presentations came from a logistics and supply chain director and her deputy, recounting their experience setting up a new distribution centre.

They told it as a story; they illustrated it with lots of pictures and relatively little text; the words and pictures meshed; they didn't go on too long. And by the end their audience were still awake, and better-informed.

Nick Higham is an analyst and roving correspondent for BBC News 24. His article originally appeared in Marketing Week in October 2005.

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